The Mass, like Bethlehem, represents both an arrival and a departure on our pilgrimage of faith.
“Let us go over to Bethlehem to see . . .” (Luke 2:15). Responding to the heavenly announcement, the shepherds set out in a sacred procession to find their Savior, as did the Magi in response to creation’s announcement in the form of a star (Matthew 2:1-12). Our Advent procession, like theirs, has again brought us into the Christmas season (Christmas Eve through Jan. 9), offering a beautiful respite from the year’s journey that is concluding and preparing us to continue our procession into the New Year: a procession to Bethlehem.
The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 80 miles, a bit less than the distance from Knoxville to Kingsport. I don’t know about you, but I’d be hard pressed to make a journey of that distance on foot. Some could make the trip more easily than others, but one wonders how unbearable the journey would become once the cell phones and iPods ran out of power. Silence has become almost a form of suffering for many when it should be an indispensable part of our faith procession.
Because of the significance of the solemnity of Christmas, the Church celebrates it as an octave, over eight days—as with Easter. Each of the days from Christmas to New Year’s Day is meant to help further our celebration. But we might wonder why we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen the day after Christmas. The Church has always viewed martyrdom as a day of birth. Just as the infant Jesus was pursued by the sword of Herod, so St. Stephen, as a “holy innocent,” represents the infant Church and its suffering in every age.
But such persecution, rather than weaken the Church, only gives it new life. And with the feast the following day of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, the only Apostle not to suffer martyrdom, we learn through the Gospel to die to ourselves and to draw ever closer to the side of Christ at the Eucharistic banquet and upon the Cross (cf. John 13:23; 19:27).
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated Dec. 28, recalls the innocent victims of Herod’s murderous envy and those lost to the Herods of every generation. The following day the Church celebrates the life of St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr, who in refusing to compromise his conscience and in defending the Church from persecution, awakened justice in the hearts of many.
On Dec. 30 the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, reminding us that whenever the Church is attacked, so also is the family—the domestic church. Lest we be discouraged by this persecution, the Church offers us on the last day of the year a feast to contemplate the life of St. Sylvester I, pope and confessor, often referred to as the “peace pope.”
Having lived under the terrible persecution of the Roman Empire that had raged for three centuries, he was blessed to witness the Church’s triumph and to lead it into an era of peace. It reminds us that the more we suffer for the faith, the more assured is Christ’s victory over the world.
It is particularly fitting that we begin each New Year by celebrating the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Blessed John Paul II described the Church as the manger where the Blessed Mother places Christ for us to adore. So we begin our New Year by taking her hand, that we might not become lost as we continue our journey, the goal of which is the “father’s house” (cf. Luke 2:49).
Unique to this particular year, two major celebrations fall back to back, concluding the Christmas season: the Epiphany (manifestation) and the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 8 and 9). With these, we are reminded of our procession toward God and also his toward us. Nowhere is this truer than in the Mass.
The procession that marks the beginning of the Mass formally concludes the procession that began with the departure from our homes and our journey to the church. God gathers us together, and the processional cross leads us before the altar. In the procession of the Book of Gospels to the ambo, we allow the Word of God to process into our hearts. To our life, which should be a continual offertory procession, we add our prayers, sacrifices, works of mercy and love, and sufferings—our very self—to what is brought to the altar. And in our Communion procession we are nourished with a foretaste of our life’s goal: fullness of communion with Christ.
The Mass represents both an arrival in our life’s procession and a departure. With the words of dismissal, in their varied formulas, we are commanded to “Go,” to continue our procession to Bethlehem, announcing “. . . the Gospel of the Lord,” and “glorifying” him by our life.
In conclusion, I wish to offer special thanks to those who offer their time and talents through the Cursillo movement, which in its nearly 15 years in our diocese has helped more than a thousand people to better continue their procession in life. I encourage you to take advantage of such opportunities to strengthen your walk in the great procession to Bethlehem.